Skip to Content

Infrastructure

Section 5: Enabling Access and Effective Use
Goal: All students and educators will have access to a robust and comprehensive infrastructure when and where they need it for learning.

Preparing students to be successful for the future requires a robust and flexible learning infrastructure capable of supporting new types of engagement and providing ubiquitous access to the technology tools that allow students to create, design, and explore. The essential components of an infrastructure capable of supporting transformational learning experiences include the following:

  • Ubiquitous connectivity. Persistent access to high-speed Internet in and out of school
  • Powerful learning devices. Access to mobile devices that connect learners and educators to the vast resources of the Internet and facilitate communication and collaboration
  • High-quality digital learning content. Digital learning content and tools that can be used to design and deliver engaging and relevant learning experiences
  • Responsible Use Policies (RUPs). Guidelines to safeguard students and ensure that the infrastructure is used to support learning

Infrastructure_Infographic_Final

Building a robust infrastructure for learning begins with an understanding of the goals and desired outcomes that support engaging and empowering learning experiences. When based on learning goals, technology infrastructure decisions become clear.

Setting Future Goals: Guidance on Assessing Your Current Situation

These questions address many of the important considerations for districts as they begin the development of a comprehensive plan for learning with technology. More detailed information and guidance can be found in the U.S. Department of Education’s Future Ready Schools: Building Technology Infrastructure for Learning.

  • What is your vision for learning that the technology infrastructure will be supporting?
  • What digital learning content, tools, and resources will be supported?
  • How many and what types of devices will be supported?
  • What kind of professional development will teachers need to become proficient with digital learning?
  • What is your current network capacity?
  • What is the current state of your physical infrastructure?
  • What resources are available to fund this transition?

Developing a Multi-Year Approach: Baltimore County Public School District’s (BCPS) Comprehensive Plan for Learning With Technology

To achieve its goal of ensuring that every school has an equitable, effective, digital learning environment and that all students and teachers have the personal technology they need to participate fully in connected learning, BCPS has developed and is implementing the Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (S.T.A.T.) initiative.

S.T.A.T. is a multi-year plan for the transformation of BCPS that includes the following eight conversions:

1. Curriculum. BCPS teachers are creating a digitally enhanced curriculum that redefines how to deliver instruction in a learner-centered, blended learning environment while raising expectations and that places greater emphasis on critical thinking and analytical skills.

2. Instruction. All BCPS teachers will facilitate learning that includes the use of technology where appropriate. BCPS One, a fully integrated technology platform that brings together all of the district’s programs and initiatives, offers a single interface for students and teachers to access blended curriculum content, including digital resources for teaching and learning.

3. Assessment. BCPS One will give teachers the ability to access and administer curriculum-aligned formative and summative assessments easily, as well as access a system-wide grade book, with real-time access for students and parents.

4. Organizational Development. Intensive job-embedded professional learning opportunities continue in the initiative’s 10 pilot Lighthouse Schools, which serve as model demonstration sites with a Teacher Leader Corp turning their classrooms into learning labs.

5. Infrastructure. BCPS currently is updating its infrastructure to support S.T.A.T. by issuing mobile devices to instructional staff and students and by updating networks to ensure all schools are fully wireless. In addition, BCPS has partnered with the Baltimore County Public Library system to enable students to access the BCPS network in any county library.

6. Policy. Current BCPS policies are under review and revision to reflect a systematic shift in language that emphasizes empowering students and staff over mandating rules.

7. Budget. The significant changes necessary within BCPS to engage a growing and diverse student population and prepare students for college, career, and life will require substantial financial investment.

8. Communication. BCPS uses several communication outlets to provide information regarding S.T.A.T., including district and school websites, newsletters, social media, BCPS-TV, and Parent University.

In February 2015, the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education released a 2014 mid-year evaluation of the S.T.A.T. initiative’s impact on the 10 pilot Lighthouse Schools.5 Although the report contains early baseline data, findings suggest that these schools are beginning to reflect the goals of S.T.A.T.

Planning for the Fast Track: Technology Implementation in Vancouver Public Schools

In 2013, voters in the Vancouver Public School District, which serves more than 23,000 students in Vancouver, Washington, passed a $24 million technology levy after a community outreach and awareness campaign under the leadership of Superintendent Steve Webb. The levy eased one of the greatest challenges of a digital learning implementation—how to pay for it. It also put pressure on the district to develop and execute a plan that would have an impact quickly.

As one teacher put it, the district rapidly went from “totally analog, creating notes pages for students on overhead projector transparencies, to laptops for all teachers to a technology deployment that today equips every student and teacher with a tablet.”

Central to the implementation were the values of equity and excellence. From the outset, the district viewed technology as a means to close achievement gaps between high-need, underserved student populations and historically higher performing students.

Equipping every student with a tablet was motivated by student learning needs. Crucial to the implementation plan are a number of pilot programs, focused on serving the unique needs of different populations, currently under way in selected schools. English language learners received devices and other digital tools equipped with translation and language development software.

To extend learning beyond the confines of the school day, and to bridge the digital divide in communities and homes across Vancouver, the district also is outfitting school buses with wireless Internet and creating hot spots at community centers and other anchor community locations such as neighborhood churches.

Ubiquitous Connectivity

Reliable connectivity, like water and electricity, is foundational to creating an effective learning environment. Students and teachers cannot take advantage of the opportunities to connect and engage globally or leverage high-quality learning resources without consistent and reliable access to the Internet. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague letter in October 2014 that included access to technology as an important component of equity of access within U.S. schools.

Connectivity at School

President Obama’s ConnectED initiative set a goal for 99 percent of students in the country to have Internet access at a minimum of 100 megabits per second per 1,000 students, with a target speed of one gigabit per second by 2018. Efforts by federal, state, and local institutions in recent years have made huge strides toward this goal. The modernization of the E-rate program in 2014 provided billions of additional dollars to help districts improve the speed of and access to Internet connectivity.

Although unprecedented resources are available to reach this goal, still significant work remains for many schools and districts. Organizations that are part of the Future Ready network, including EducationSuperHighway and CoSN, are committed to supporting schools throughout this transition.

ConnectHome

ConnectHome is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program focused on increasing access to high-speed Internet for low-income households. The pilot program launched in 27 cities and one tribal nation in the summer of 2015, initially reaching more than 275,000 low-income households and nearly 200,000 children. As part of the program, Internet service providers, nonprofits, and the private sector will offer broadband access, technical training, digital literacy programs, and devices for residents in assisted housing units.3 For more information, visit http://connecthome.hud.gov/.

Connectivity at Home

Learning does not stop at the end of the school day, and access to digital learning resources should not either. According to a report from the Council of Economic Advisers, approximately 55 percent of low-income children under the age of 10 in the United States lack Internet access at home.1

These statistics along with consideration of the amount of time spent out of school have given rise to concerns about a “homework gap” between students whose Internet connections at home are slow or non-existent—a problem disproportionately common in rural and underserved communities—and those who have home connections with adequate speed. They also give credence to the view that connectivity at home for students is an essential component of a 21st century education—not something merely nice to have—if we are to avoid exacerbating pre-existing inequities in unconnected homes.2

Educational leaders should work to ensure learners have access to connectivity and devices when they leave school grounds so that they are not limited in their ability to experience high-quality connected learning fully. To support schools in this effort, organizations such as EveryoneOn focus on providing highly subsidized Internet access to low-income households. In addition, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched ConnectHome in 2015 to focus on bringing high-speed Internet to low-income communities so everyone can participate in our increasingly connected society.

Bringing Connectivity to the Poorest Communities: Coachella Valley, California

When Coachella Valley Unified School District made the decision to implement a plan to transform learning through technology, the plan’s architects quickly realized that round-the-clock access to high-speed Internet was essential to create connected learning opportunities in and outside of school. However, because of broad socio-economic diversity in the district, equity of access was a challenge.

Geographically, the district draws from Riverside County, California, and serves the city of Coachella, the community of Thermal, portions of the city of Indio, and Salton City in Imperial County, educating more than 18,000 students across 25 schools. The local cable company refused to run fiber through Native American reservations in the area or through a local mobile home park, leaving some of the district’s highest need students on the outside looking in when the school day ended.

To answer the challenge, the district equipped 100 of its school buses with wireless Internet routers with rooftop solar panels to supply power. This enabled students to connect to the Internet on the way to and from school and while traveling to sporting events and extracurricular activities. In addition, at night the Wi-Fi–equipped fleet parked in some of the poorest areas of the district, making high-speed Internet available to students virtually anytime and anywhere.

The initiative was not without challenges. Leadership needed buy-in from the community and the teachers’ union, whose members draw salary and benefits from the same general fund. District leaders obtained community buy-in through high-touch outreach that included committee meetings and focus groups as well as speaking directly with or sending e-mail to individual community members. Superintendent Darryl Adams focused on building a bridge between the vision of success that everyone deeply desired for the district’s students and the concrete means to realize that vision.

Buoyed by the success of this initiative, Coachella Valley now has a long-term plan for the district to become its own Internet service provider, breaking its dependence on commercial telecom companies.

Bringing Broadband to New Communities: Oklahoma Choctaw Nation Tribal Area Creates Public-Private Collaboration

Because of the high cost of installing and maintaining the infrastructure required for high-speed connectivity, many sparsely populated areas of the country lack access to the Internet, widening the digital divide for people living in rural areas. The Choctaw Nation Tribal Area has demonstrated how—through a combination of grants, loans, and donations—private industries can bring critical access to these underserved communities.

In 2009–10, Pine Telephone, the service provider offering voice, video, cell, long- distance, and high-speed broadband in southeastern Oklahoma applied for and received four American Recovery and Reinvestment awards totaling $56 million to build the infrastructure to provide Internet access to the 10 unserved counties encompassed by the Choctaw Nation.6

Prior to this investment, the Choctaw Nation Tribal Area lacked access to reliable broadband service. The low population density (8.3 to 19.7 people per square mile), the high poverty rate (25 percent of the population below the poverty line), and the rugged terrain made the economics of broadband infrastructure very challenging. Initial capital costs to deploy broadband meant that broadband service was limited to commercially viable areas.7

Today, more than 1,700 customers have access to high-speed connectivity over both fiber and wireless networks, as does every school in the Pine Telephone service area. One district, Broken Bow School District, has been able to use digital devices, online lesson plans, and supplemental online programming.

Family engagement in the Broken Bow School District has improved because parents have online access to records of attendance, assignments, and test scores. The connectivity also allows the Choctaw Nation to multicast educational videos and share messages from tribal leadership from a central location. For example, the School of Choctaw Language now offers distance learning courses to approximately 14 Head Starts and 32 high schools within the Choctaw Nation, in addition to several universities.8

Taking Service Everywhere: Texas Library Goes All Digital

The librarians at BiblioTech, an all-digital public library in San Antonio, Texas, are interested in how they can leverage their digital status to serve local communities better where a deep divide exists between those who have access to the Internet and those who do not.

Accredited as a state library in Texas, BiblioTech operates under the belief that, “[If] a digital library can go anywhere, it should go everywhere.”9 In an area where 78 percent of library patrons’ homes are without Internet access, the library has distributed 10 eReading devices to five schools within the local school district with the greatest need. Schools quickly recognized the value of these resources and matched or exceeded the number of eReaders in circulation as part of their school library collections.

Within the walls of BiblioTech’s physical spaces, users will find eReaders for loan, computers for research, reading and story time for younger readers, and community education courses through partnerships with other local organizations. Because all of the content is stored on the eReading devices the library has for circulation, librarians now spend their time assisting patrons with accessing information, resources, and content.

In addition, because BiblioTech branches require only 2,100 square feet of space, the library is able to co-locate within local public housing developments to put resources and connectivity within reach of patrons who might otherwise be cut off from its collections. Opened in September 2013, BiblioTech has an outreach team that is working to make community presentations in every school in the 14 local districts.

Ensuring Access in All Spaces: Indiana Gives Incarcerated Juveniles Internet for Learning

Incarcerated youth attend schools typically not equipped with access to the Internet, making it difficult for teachers to use digital learning materials. Similarly, students are unable to access the vast array of digital learning experiences and resources that are increasingly available to other students.

Attempts to address this problem by providing teacher-only access to Internet-enabled interactive whiteboards served only as a halfway measure in that many Internet sites still were blocked from Internet Protocol addresses emanating from juvenile correctional facilities.

In June 2014, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice issued a letter to state departments of education and state juvenile justice agencies stating that incarcerated youth need to have the same educational opportunities as those of their non-system-involved peers.10

As a result, Indiana approached American Prison Data Systems, a public benefits corporation based in New York City that offers a private network, to determine whether the technology solution it offered through its secure wireless tablets would work inside Indiana’s juvenile correctional system. Digital content is delivered via a special secure wireless connection. Students do not reach out and access content from the Internet; instead, approved content is delivered to the student via the secure connection.

In collaboration with Oakland City University, the Indiana Department of Correction implemented a pilot project using American Prison Data Systems secure wireless tablets at the Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility located in Madison, Indiana. Each girl in the facility receives a tablet for use during and after school hours. This pilot project also involved 10 entertainment tablets, which were loaded with movies, games, and music and used as incentives for youth who met their behavior goals.

The project began in late September 2014, with positive preliminary results, including a reduction in the number of negative incidences occurring in the living units, a reduction in grievances and acting-out behaviors as a result of students being able to send easily monitored messages to adults, significant interest in accessing content via tablets, and a reduction in idle time among the girls.

Powerful Learning Devices

Any effort to leverage the power of mobile learning devices and resources is dependent on access to high-speed connectivity. Selecting appropriate devices depends in large measure largely on the age of the students, their individual learning needs and the types of learning activities that will be ongoing in the classroom or after school program. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology (OET) published Future Ready Schools: Building Technology Infrastructure for Learning in November 2014 to help schools and districts consider device purchases as well as other infrastructure concerns when building technology systems to support learning. Schools should provide students with appropriate learning devices. Selecting appropriate devices depends largely on the age of the students and the types of learning activities that will be supported. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology (OET) published Future Ready Schools: Building Technology Infrastructure for Learning in November 2014 to help schools and districts consider device purchases as well as other infrastructure concerns when building technology systems to support learning.

Beware of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or Bring Your Own Tech (BYOT)

Many institutions have BYOD or BYOT policies that permit students to use their own mobile devices at school. Although it is certainly reasonable to allow students to learn and communicate using their own devices, serious concerns arise if schools use BYOD as their primary method for ensuring students have devices, including the following:

Economic disparity. The ability to access digital learning resources is distributed disproportionately to students whose families can afford the devices. This can widen the very gaps that technology is capable of closing. This situation also may raise legal concerns because schools are expected to provide a free education for all students.

Instructional burden. It can be very difficult for teachers to manage learning experiences and activities when they have to support multiple platforms and device types, and some activities may be incompatible with some devices. In this situation, teachers may revert to activities of the lowest common denominator that work on older and less robust devices at the expense of a more effective learning experience.

Privacy and security. Student-owned devices may not have appropriate safeguards in place for storing their learning data. In addition, personal devices likely will not have the security features required to provide valid assessment.

High-Quality Digital Learning Content

Schools and colleges need to ensure students have access to a variety of high-quality digital learning materials and resources to support their learning. The ability to curate and share digital learning content is an important component of a robust infrastructure for learning.

Openly Licensed Educational Resources

One of the most effective ways to provide high-quality digital learning materials at scale is through the use of openly licensed educational resources. These resources may be used, modified, and shared without paying any licensing fees or requesting permission. Open licenses for this purpose have been created by organizations such as Creative Commons for learning resources. For software, a number of open license types are available, such as the GNU General Public License and others recognized by the Open Source Initiative or the Free Software Foundation. This is significant considering that the United States currently spends approximately $8 billion each year purchasing commercial learning resources.4 Replacing just one textbook for one subject can free up tens of thousands of dollars for other purposes.

There are advantages other than just cost savings. Openly licensed materials can be more accurate than traditional textbooks because they can be updated continually as content changes. Openly licensed materials also allow teachers to exercise their own creativity and expertise so they can tailor learning materials to meet the needs of their students.

States including California, Illinois, Utah, and Washington have established programs to help teachers access, curate, refine, and share openly licensed learning resources. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Funding for Technology Dear Colleague letter states that Title II funds can be used to prepare teachers to create, use, and share openly licensed digital learning resources.

Platforms and organizations such as the K–12 OER Collaborative, Illinois Shared Learning Environment, and Net Texts are designed specifically for teachers to locate open content and adapt it, as needed, for their students.

Making Open Mean Everyone: University of Mary Washington ds106

An open, online course on digital storytelling, ds106 moves beyond the capabilities of most MOOCs into a learning experience that happens on multiple platforms and across multiple mediums. The course is offered as part of the computer science catalog at the University of Mary Washington—but ds106 is open to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Participants in ds106 co-learn and co-create to build their own digital story while engaging in dialogue about the ways we communicate with each other through video, audio, social media, and artwork. The course is described as “part storytelling workshop, part technology training, and most importantly, part critical interrogation of the digital landscape that is ever increasingly mediating how we communicate with one another.”11

Across 15 weeks, ds106 participants complete a number of assignments across platforms (Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, WordPress, and so on), creating their own domain, Web presence, and digital story, as well as exploring the role of digital media in online communication. Materials and learning are tailored completely to student interest and passion. If a section of the course is uninteresting, students can drop in and drop out at any time, allowing ds106 participants to forge their own learning pathway.

To date, students have created a collection of more than 800 assignments, hosted on their own sites and also collected in a searchable assignment bank on the ds106 website. Students can browse or search the assignment bank, add their own creations, or chose to remix an existing creation through a tool called the Remix Machine.

Responsible Use Policies (RUP)

Districts with Internet connectivity and device access also should have policies in place to promote responsible use and protect student privacy. A RUP is a written agreement among parents, students, and school personnel that outlines the terms of responsible use and consequences for misuse. Effective RUPs create an opportunity to teach students, while in school, to become responsible digital citizens, which will help them thrive in a connected world.

RUPs traditionally cover topics such as expectations for how students will interact with one another in digital spaces, what resources students may or may not access with district-provided devices and over a school network, as well as standards for academic integrity when using technology for learning. These policies also can outline school and system agreements as to the use of student data and information. Typically, parents acknowledge that their child agrees to basic care and responsibility guidelines, and students sign a contract agreeing to follow rules governing use of the Internet and online conduct.

RUPs should be written in plain language that is easily accessible to students, parents, and district personnel. Technology also can assist in the easy translation of these policies into other languages, providing a bridge to communication that otherwise might leave some families disconnected. If policies and procedures for the use of devices are too strict, they often have unintended negative consequences, such as preventing access to legitimate educational resources. For additional information on questions to consider when drafting a RUP, see the the U.S. Department of Education’s Policies for Users of Student Data: A Checklist or the CoSN publication Rethinking Acceptable Use Policies to Enable Learning: A Guide for School Districts.

Policies and procedures for device management, teaching responsible use, and safeguarding student privacy should be in place and understood by all members of the community prior to providing Internet access or devices. Future Ready Schools: Building Technology Infrastructure for Learning, offers extensive guidance on how to prepare students to use the Internet, a school-provided or personal device at school, or a school-provided device at home appropriately.

In addition to Internet access and device use, with the growing popularity of social media in learning, districts also should consider policies and guidelines for their safe and productive use in schools.

Protections for Student Data and Privacy

The use of student data is crucial for personalized learning and continuous improvement (see Section 4: Assessment). Acting as the stewards of student data presents educators with several responsibilities. School officials, families, and software developers have to be mindful of how data privacy, confidentiality, and security practices affect students. Schools and districts have an obligation to tell students and families what kind of student data the school or third parties (e.g., online educational service providers) are collecting and how the data can be used. As they plan, schools and other educational institutions should be certain that policies are in place regarding who has access to student data and that students and families understand their rights and responsibilities concerning data collection.

These policies should include not only formal adoption processes for online educational services but also informal adoptions such as the downloading of an application to a mobile device and agreeing to clickwraps. A user encounters a clickwrap when asked to click on a button to accept the provider’s terms of service before using an app or software. With clickwrap agreements, the act of accepting the terms of service enters the developer and the user (in this case, the school or district) into a contractual relationship akin to signing a contract. The U.S. Department of Education offers schools and families examples, training, and other assistance in navigating privacy concerns through the Privacy Technical Assistance Center. This information includes Protecting Student Privacy while Using Online Educational Services: Requirements and Best Practices, Protecting Student Privacy while Using Online Educational Services: Model Terms of Service, and Checklist for Developing School District Privacy Programs.

Key Federal Laws Protecting Student Data and Privacy

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a federal law that affords parents the right to inspect and review their children’s education records, the right to seek to have the education records amended, and the right to have some control over the disclosure of personally identifiable information from the education records. When a student turns 18 or enters a post-secondary education institution at any age, the rights under FERPA transfer to the student. Students to whom FERPA rights have transferred are termed eligible students.

FERPA generally requires that parents or eligible students provide prior written consent before schools can share personally identifiable information from a student’s education records, unless an exception applies. For example, when schools and districts use online educational services, they must ensure that FERPA requirements are met. Typically, the FERPA school official exception to consent will apply to schools’ and districts’ use of online educational services. The U.S. Department of Education issued best practice guidance to address questions related to student privacy and the use of online educational technology in the classroom, available at http://ptac.ed.gov/document/protecting-student-privacy-while-using-online-educational-services.

The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232h; 34 CFR Part 98) governs the administration to students of a survey, analysis, or evaluation that reveals information concerning one or more of eight protected areas, including, but not limited to, sexual behaviors and attitudes and illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, and demeaning behavior. PPRA also concerns marketing surveys and other areas of student privacy, parental access to information, and the administration of certain physical examinations to minors.

For more information about FERPA and PPRA, visit http://familypolicy.ed.gov/. General questions about FERPA or PPRA may be submitted to the Family Policy Compliance Office by using the Contact Us tab on that website or directly at http://familypolicy.ed.gov/content/questionscomments.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) (15 U.S.C. § 6501–6505) governs online collection of personal information from children under age 13. For example, before a developer can collect any information from a student under 13, verifiable parental consent is required. The FCC, which enforces COPPA, has said that school officials can act in the capacity of a parent to provide consent to sign students up for online educational programs at school. The general guidance is that software companies are allowed to track students within their program, but COPPA prevents them from tracking those students across the Internet.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) (47 U.S.C. § 254) imposes several requirements on schools or libraries that receive E-rate discounts for Internet access. Schools and libraries must certify that they have an Internet safety policy that includes technology protection measures. These protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are obscene, pornographic, or harmful to minors, and schools also must monitor the online activities of minors. Because most schools receive E-rate funds, they are required to educate their students about appropriate online behavior, including on social networking websites and in chat rooms, and to build cyberbullying awareness. Particularly if a digital learning resource requires networking among students, schools must comply with CIPA.

IDEA also provides confidentiality protections and often additionally will protect information for students with disabilities.

Device and Network Management

Many schools underestimate the importance of a plan for staffing and resources for ongoing monitoring, management, and maintenance of network infrastructure. We must ensure that student data are maintained in secure systems that meet all applicable federal and state requirements concerning the protection of personally identifiable information. Key elements of an infrastructure plan should include the following:

  • Network management and monitoring
  • User help desk and technical support
  • Maintenance and upgrade of devices and equipment
  • Insurance for devices
  • Estimates of future demand and network capacity planning
  • Licensing fees for digital learning content
  • Security filtering
  • Network redundancy
  • Use of open standards to ensure interoperability with other learning networks

Interoperability. As teachers and students go online for more of their teaching and learning needs, the number of systems they rely on increases. This makes it very difficult for teachers and students to see a comprehensive picture of their learning progress or to know where students are struggling so that teachers can give them effective support. There are some approaches in place to address these challenges. For example, the Guide to EdTech Procurement from Digital Learning Now! recommends leveraging industry standards for single sign-on and data interoperability.

Single sign-on. Apps and tools can be built to enable single sign-on—allowing teachers and students to log in to all their applications with a single password. A teacher teaching six classes of students a day with multiple apps and tools needs a way to manage learning content, attendance, student progress, and grades. Students and teachers having to keep track of a different user name and password to log in to each system wastes time and creates frustration. In addition, if all the different learning systems do not recognize who a student is, they cannot help schools create a complete picture of that student’s learning. For all these reasons, solutions involving single sign-on are needed for teachers and students to access all their applications through a single log-in credential. Many districts are even moving from preferring single sign-on to requiring it.

Interoperable systems. No one app or tool can provide all the functionality that every teacher, student, or parent may need. Enabling teachers and students to use more than one app seamlessly goes beyond just having a common log-in. Basic information, such as student schedules or courses completed, may need to be shared from one system to another to provide the best learning experience. For example, if a student demonstrates the mastery of a new concept in an online learning platform, that might be reflected in an app that the teacher or families use to track student progress.

One common format for Web services in education is the Learning Tools Interoperability standard. The IMS Global Learning Consortium developed this standard, and information about the specification can be found on its website. This standard allows learning management systems to exchange data with other learning tools and applications approved for use by the school so that students can have a seamless learning experience even if they are using apps created by different developers.

Data interoperability and standards. Regardless of whether you enable data sharing through an existing or custom application program interface or through a data export option, in order to be useful, the data need to be in a common format. For example, when transferring student data between systems, should a system indicate gender as M or F or as male or female? Should the name of the field be student name or first name? These are essential items to define if we are going to allow students to move seamlessly between learning apps. Fortunately, data interoperability frameworks have been established to ensure data are presented in usable formats. In addition to the CEDS mentioned earlier, the following are examples of existing frameworks, resources, and organizational alliances that address the issue of data interoperability:

Recommendations

Ensure students and educators have broadband access to the Internet and adequate wireless connectivity, with a special focus on equity of access outside of school. Although connectivity itself does not ensure transformational use of technology to enable learning, lack of connectivity almost certainly precludes it. Working with federal programs such as E-rate through the FCC, as well as with nonprofit partners such as CoSN, EducationSuperHighway, EveryoneOn, and others, states, districts, and post-secondary institutions should make sure technology-enabled learning is available for all students, everywhere, all the time.

Ensure that every student and educator has at least one Internet access device and appropriate software and resources for research, communication, multimedia content creation, and collaboration for use in and out of school. Only when learners have the tools necessary to complete these activities are they able to realize the potential of education technologies fully. States and districts should make sure such device purchases are funded sustainably with a plan for device refresh.

Support the development and use of openly licensed educational materials to promote innovative and creative opportunities for all learners and accelerate the development and adoption of new open technology–based learning tools and courses. Similar to those leading state and local efforts under way in California, Illinois, and Washington state, administrators and policymakers at all levels and in formal and informal spaces should consider the diversified learning paths and potential cost savings inherent in the use of such openly licensed resources.

Draft sustainability plans for infrastructure concerns that include upgrades of wired and wireless access as well as device refresh plans and sustainable funding sources while ensuring the safety and protection of student data. As state and local education institutions work to bridge the existing digital divide, they concurrently should be drafting plans for the upgrade of infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of increased user demand as well as speeds necessary for the use of evolving technologies. These plans should include specific systems and strategies for protecting student data, be drafted with cross-stakeholder groups, and include special consideration of funding sustainability and possible partners.

Create a comprehensive map and database of connectivity, device access, use of openly licensed educational resources, and their uses across the country. To understand the digital divide better and progress toward bridging it, researchers, state and local officials, and district administrators should work in concert with one another to test connectivity speeds in schools and homes and to identify the kinds of devices to which educators and students have access and the ratios of devices to users within education institutions. The building of such a map and database would allow for the visualization of inequities of access and targeted interventions to alleviate them. In addition, the level of engagement with openly licensed learning materials should be made transparent as an indicator of progress toward equitable access and effective allocation of resources.


  1. Council of Economic Advisers Issue Brief. (2015). Mapping the digital divide. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/wh_digital_divide_issue_brief.pdf.
  2. Digital Inclusion Survey. (2013). Digital inclusion survey 2013. Retrieved from http://digitalinclusion.umd.edu/.
  3. The White House Office of the Press Secretary. (2015). FACT SHEET: ConnectHome: Coming together to ensure digital opportunity for all Americans. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/07/15/fact-sheet-connecthome-coming-together-ensure-digital-opportunity-all.
  4. Association of American Publishers. (2015). Instructional materials funding facts. Retrieved from http://publishers.org/our-markets/prek-12-learning/instructional-materials-funding-facts.
  5. Morrison, J. R., Ross, S. M., & Reid, A. J. (2015). Report for Baltimore County Public Schools: Students and teachers accessing tomorrow—Mid-year evaluation report. Baltimore: Center for Research and Reform in Education (CREE), Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved from https://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/9UB87F639DC1/$file/BCPSMidYearReportFINAL2.26.pdf.
  6. United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development. (2015). USDA, Pine Telephone bring broadband Internet to areas of southeast Oklahoma, Choctaw Nation for first time. Retrieved from http://www.rd.usda.gov/newsroom/news-release/usda-pine-telephone-bring-broadband-internet-areas-southeast-oklahoma-choctaw.
  7. The White House. ConnectED: President Obama’s plan for connecting all schools to the digital age. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/connected_fact_sheet.pdf.
  8. The White House Executive Office of the President. (2015). Community-based broadband solutions: The benefits of competition and choice for community development and highspeed Internet access. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/community-based_broadband_report_by_executive_office_of_the_president.pdf.
  9. Bob Warburton. (2014). Second BiblioTech Coming to Bexar County Housing Development. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2014/12/industry-news/second-bibliotech-coming-to-bexar-county-housing-development/#_.
  10. U.S. Department of Education. (2014). Key policy letters signed by the education secretary or deputy secretary. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/secletter/140609.html.
  11. DS106. About dc106. Retrieved from http://ds106.us/about/.

Feedback / Share Your Thoughts

Contact Us

Have a question? Interested in learning more? Send us a note!